As I walk through Kelvingrove Park in this beautiful weather I find myself smiling. It could be at a dog passing, a baby in a pram smiling at me, the sun, the trees, the weather. It could be a memory from walking down other paths, in other places, with other people, whether it be an adventure in the mountains or walking through the meadows in Edinburgh in spring under the blooms. Whatever it happens to be I find myself smiling. Granted I likely look a wee bit off and there’s part of me that’s self-conscious, but it makes me feel better and it seems to be the only way to express my gratitude for the enjoyment of just being in that moment.
This feeling is an unusual one for me these days, if you haven’t noticed from my other posts. My mind is often focused on what I have to get done or more often what I haven’t gotten done. The deadlines, my failures, shortcomings, that conversation last night, or the latest horrible thing that happened in the world. But every once in a while, that walk through the park to uni is enough to snap me out of it for a second. At first, I would pull myself up short and refocus on the ‘important things’. Important seems to translate to ‘productive’ and PhD centric tasks, usually taking the form of the theoretical or bureaucratic issue I was meant to be working on that day. But now, I’m rethinking that and trying to learn to embrace those moments and even go out and find them.
I think my recent trips out to Mull and Arran helped remind me of how important even those small grateful moments in nature are to my mental wellbeing. Before I started my PhD, I would regularly go for short walks through the local orchards and woods to clear my head or to sort something I was struggling with. If things were getting to be too much I would plan a walk in the White Mountains, but those habits changed in my PhD.
Finding time to just go for a walk and think use to just happen, but with the stress and demands of a PhD it became one of the first causalities. It took gaining a little space to breath to begin to realise how important this seemingly minor practice – done mostly just for enjoyment – is to my wellbeing. It’s time to reflect and process, which I find so necessary not only for my work, but for allowing my better angels to come through and stop the cycle of anxiety. It’s only in those calm reflective moments that I seem to have the wherewithal to talk myself down and make healthier more reasonable decisions and expectations for myself. It gives me the space to answer the negative and nagging voices that lead to the imposter syndrome. It becomes a brief respite from all that’s wrong with the world streamed 24/7 on every screen by reminding me that there are things to smile at and be grateful for. It gives me time to see and laugh at the irony that the very things that help us cope with stress and anxiety are often the first to be sacrificed to the demands of our PhDs.
As helpful as a walk is, it isn’t a silver bullet for me and it doesn’t always work, nor am I always in a stress and anxiety induced spiral towards cynicism. Although, I have found that going for a walk does help and on my bad days my mind has a proclivity to head in that direction. I also doubt a simple walk in a park will work for everyone and it rarely fixes anything, but it makes me feel better and feel better about the situation I’m in, which I think is the first step to making it better. I guess my advice would be: take note of the times and things that make you smile. Recognise their value and be intentional about making time for them. I think that is one of the best ways to create the necessary space from your PhD, so you can process and think clearly. I also find it’s a good reminder that there’s more to us and the world then our work – our PhD. And quite simply being happy, or grateful, or content are good things and the only place, I think, human beings truly find rest and peace. So, make time to take care of yourself, to enjoy the simple things like this beautiful weather, make time for a walk, make time to smile.
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